Montana Gallagher Series
Montana Territory, October 1883
I won’t be far behind you. Ramsey’s words echoed through Eliza’s thoughts. When she had asked for time to prepare her family for his return, she didn’t expect this much time. There’s something I have to do, he had told her. They now had more to lose than ever before—a new generation of Gallaghers lived at Hawk’s Peak.
I won’t be far behind you.
Eliza had been able to hold off the inevitable tongue-lashing she knew her brothers wanted to deliver, but she’d be unable to forestall them much longer. For now, she could be grateful their ire was directed elsewhere.
“You remember what we talked about, Eliza?” Ethan glanced briefly at his brother and then looked directly at her.
Eliza nodded. “I remember, but just this time.”
“We’ll take what we can get, sis,” Gabriel said.
“That’s settled then.” Ethan stood to move from behind the desk. “Gabriel will take two men and head north, and I’ll take two more and head south in case Jeb misinformed us. If we leave tomorrow, we may be able to catch up with Hunter, or at the very least, discover exactly where he’s going. The rest of the men will stay here—we still have cattle to look after and we’re not leaving any of you alone. Now, I’ll go out and let the men know the—”
“Rider coming in!” someone shouted from outside. Ethan rushed to the window and Gabriel quickly joined him. The snow had stopped, and now the cold air misted around the mountains. Eliza stood beside them and saw the lines of the horse and man as they raced over frozen earth toward them. Something familiar stood out about the rider, and Eliza moved to the railing in an attempt to see more of him. Broad shoulders filled a dark coat, open to show the heavy woolen shirt beneath. His brown felt hat remained in place despite the speed of his ride. Long limbs fell on either side of the magnificent stallion—a horse familiar to Eliza.
The rider came to an abrupt stop in front of the hitching post and lifted deep green eyes to the three on the porch. Gabriel heard his sister gasp and turned to her, but her eyes remained on the man sitting atop a thoroughbred similar to his Zeus.
“What’s going on?” Gabriel faced his sister. “Do you know this man?”
Ethan hit the side of Gabriel’s arm and walked to the edge of the porch. “Take a closer look, brother.”
Gabriel did and when the man stared back, seven years slipped away. “Ramsey?”
“Sorry I’m late, Gallagher.” Ramsey remained on his horse. “I had a devil of a time with the weather through the pass.”
“What are you talking about?” Ethan’s gaze shifted back and forth between Ramsey and his sister. Both continued to stare at each other. “We heard you’d be coming out this way, but as I live and breathe Ramsey, I didn’t believe it.”
“I could have used an extra week, but Gabriel’s friend, Jeb, said you needed a marshal fast. He found me on the trail outside of Bozeman.”
Eliza spoke up. “What does that have to do with—oh my.”
Ramsey moved the edge of his heavy coat aside to reveal the small, round silver badge pinned to his wool vest.
“How is that possible? You didn’t say—”
“There’s a lot I didn’t tell you, Eliza.” Ramsey dismounted and tied his horse to the post. He took a moment to glance around at the men approaching from two sides. “I’m glad to see you have numbers,” he said and moved up to the porch.
Gabriel leaned against the railing. “You’re the marshal?”
“When?” Eliza took a few steps toward Ramsey.
“Just after you left.” Ramsey smiled at her. “I figured it would come in handy.”
Once, years ago, they had called Ramsey a friend. Whenever they happened to be on the same trail or in town at the same time, they enjoyed Ramsey’s company. Why Ramsey worked for Hunter was a question asked more than once among the Gallaghers. It wasn’t until later that they discovered the possibility that Ramsey was Nathan Hunter’s grandson.
Eliza had never imagined that their family would be joined with Nathan Hunter, but when Brenna Cameron had showed up in Briarwood a year ago, looking for her grandfather, no one could have stopped the events which followed. Brenna may have been the granddaughter of their fiercest enemy, but love was determined to win, despite everything. Marrying Brenna was the smartest thing Ethan had ever done, and Eliza happily called her “family.”
Ethan stepped forward and slapped a hand on Ramsey’s shoulder. “You have some explaining to do.”
“I know that, but there’s something else I have to do first.”
The front door slowly eased open, and Brenna poked her head out and looked at her husband. “Will our guest be joining us for breakfast?”
Ethan lifted her hand from the edge of the door and pulled her outside.
“It’s as cold as the Highland hills out here, Ethan.”
Ethan removed his coat and draped it over his wife’s shoulders and leaned down. “There’s someone you need to meet,” he whispered against her ear.
“Who might that be?” Brenna stepped back into her husband and gasped. “Faith, but it can’t be!”
Brenna stepped forward toward the image of her father as she remembered him from her days as a child. “Are you really here? Is it truly you?”
Ramsey stepped forward and turned all of his attention to the woman before him. He lifted his hands to her face, one on each side, and raised her tear-filled eyes.
“It’s really me, Brenna.”
Brenna looked at Eliza. “This is your doing? You found him.”
Eliza smiled at her sister-in-law. “He was easier to find than I thought.”
“I’m sorry she had to come all the way to Kentucky to find me, but I’m grateful she did.” Ramsey shared a momentary glance with Eliza before turning back to his sister. “I would have come back, but I’ll admit that Eliza was the motivation I needed to see you.”
Brenna stepped back from him. “You would have come here without telling me?”
Ramsey didn’t hesitate before answering. “I wish I had the answer you’d want to hear.” He looked over at Ethan and Gabriel, who waited patiently while he spoke to Brenna. “I heard about your troubles and planned to do what I could—without telling you,” he admitted.
Ethan looked fondly at his sister. “Eliza has a way of changing a person’s way of thinking.”
Ramsey nodded. “Yes, she does.”
Brenna drew his attention with her quiet words. “Tell me you’re staying.”
Ramsey saw the unmistakable pleading in Brenna’s eyes, and yet he refused to make a guarantee on the unknown. “I don’t know yet.”
“If it’s time you need, I’ll understand. I won’t ask for what you can’t give. We’re nearly strangers, but I hope we can change that.”
“So do I.” Ramsey returned her smile. Brenna’s warm and genuine smile was a foreign sensation. In Kentucky, he had called the Tremaine family his friends, but they knew only what little he had shared over the three years he’d known them. When he had left his grandfather’s ranch seven years ago, he built a strong barrier around the part of him capable of feeling real emotion. Whether that barrier would crumble remained to be seen. He couldn’t predict what would happen while he was in Montana, and he refused to cause his sister pain by making promises he wasn’t sure he could keep.
Brenna interrupted his thoughts. “Grandmother is here.”
Ramsey shifted his focus to the house and then to Ethan. “What happened?”
“Hunter went looking for her, and we thought this was the safest place for her. She was here when Mabel passed and chose to stay.”
“It’d be best if she is told before I see her.”
Eliza waited for the small group to move into the house, and yet Ramsey and Brenna remained transfixed outside. The morning sun offered little light and no warmth. Eliza looked up to the sky and watched the heavy gray clouds settle comfortably around the mountain peaks. In those few moments, it wasn’t the promise of a heavy winter that loomed in the air or the struggles that lay ahead with Hunter and his men. A brother and sister had been reunited, never having known the beauty of that special bond. Eliza looked at Ethan and then to Gabriel. She understood that bond. Her chest constricted, and the need to walk away overwhelmed her. Stepping toward Ramsey’s horse, she took the reins from Jake, who had been the closest ranch hand when Ramsey rode up.
“I can look after him, Eliza,” said Jake.
Eliza shook her head. “I’d like to see to him.”
Jake tilted his head at the edginess in her voice but released the reins and stepped back as she turned the horse toward the stable.
“Where’s she going?” Gabriel stared after his sister’s retreating back.
Ramsey turned momentarily away from Brenna to watch Eliza walk away with his horse. He looked back to his sister and smiled. “There’s something I need to do, but I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
Brenna nodded. “I’ll let Grandmother know you’re here.”
“Thank you.” Ramsey squeezed Brenna’s hand as he imagined a brother would do. He nodded to Ethan and Gabriel, then walked quickly over the snow-covered ground to follow Eliza’s boot prints.
Though a good size, the stable was now crowded with more than just the horses for which it had been built. When Ramsey had stopped off in Briarwood, Loren, the storekeeper, told him about the barn burning and the housekeeper’s death. He had met Mabel only once but remembered talk of her kindness in town. She had been part of the Gallaghers’ family, and they had lost her because of his family.
Eliza turned at the sound of boots on wooden planks but continued with the task of removing the saddle and blanket from Ramsey’s horse. She heard him come up behind her and watched his hand smooth over the stallion’s back.
“Thank you for looking after him.”
Eliza nodded and picked up a horse brush out of a nearby bucket and slowly moved the soft bristles over the animal’s shoulder. Ramsey covered her hand with his, halting her progress. She lifted bright blue eyes to his green. He didn’t release his hold on her hand or the brush.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you everything. I had to be certain it would work out,” he said quietly. “After everything I failed to do for my sister, for your family, I wanted to be certain there was no way out this time for my grandfather.”
“It’s easier to call him Hunter.”
“You’re forgetting that’s also my name.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” She slid the brush down the horse’s side, forcing Ramsey to release his hold on her. “You were born a Cameron.”
“I haven’t earned the right to use their name.”
“I imagine Brenna would see things differently.” Eliza set the brush in the bucket and pushed Ramsey out of the way. She moved his horse into the last empty stall and checked the water and feed before closing the gate.
Ramsey stepped forward to run a hand over the horse’s muzzle. He gave Eliza his full attention, as though nothing else mattered but what she might say.
“Have you once stopped to think that perhaps you’ve suffered as much as your sister?”
“Why? Because she’s a woman? Because she suffered at the hands of the man who is kin to you both?”
“She could have—”
“Died? Yes, she could have been killed. We’ve all come close, and we’ve all lost people important to us.” Eliza concentrated to prevent the tears from filling her eyes. “This isn’t about what the Gallaghers have suffered. We’ll get our justice, but don’t compare your losses with Brenna’s because from where I’m standing, you’ve lost as much, if not more.”
“Eliza, how in the hell can you say that? She lost everything!”
“If I thought it were possible, I’d beat some sense into you!” Eliza took a deep breath. “You both lost parents, you both lost the chance to know each other, and you both have a grandfather who destroyed your lives.” Eliza calmed down enough to close the distance between them. “You had to live with a horrible man, and then when you discovered the truth, you had to live with the knowledge that you had parents and a sister you might never know.”
Ramsey nearly turned away from her, but Eliza gently brushed her fingers over the light growth of hair on his jaw. “You’ve suffered enough, but if we help each other, we can end the suffering of both our families.”
He lifted his eyes to study Eliza. “Have your brothers ever told you you’re bossy?”
She laughed. She didn’t know what else to do, and it felt wonderful. “All of the time.”
“Thank you,” he whispered, leaning into her and resting his forehead against hers.
“Brenna is waiting, and I imagine your grandmother now knows you’re here,” Eliza said quietly after taking another deep breath.
Ramsey nodded and pulled back. He held out his arm to her. “Walk with me?”
“I generally get to know a fella before I go strolling on his arm.”
He smiled. “Perhaps we could skip a step or two.”
Eliza considered him carefully, uncertain if he was responding to her light humor or if he was serious. She slid her arm through his and walked beside him through the snow to the house. Her eyes shifted briefly to the remains of the burned barn.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he said softly. “I know she meant a great deal to your family.”
She didn’t respond, and they continued to walk in silence. Eliza struggled daily with the knowledge that their continued fighting with Hunter had led to Mabel’s death. Their housekeeper, Mabel, had been a surrogate mother when theirs passed away, but more importantly, she had been their friend, and Eliza still ached from the loss. When they reached the porch steps, she stopped and faced Ramsey. “Do you really believe that badge you’re wearing will make a difference?”
Ramsey lowered his arm. “It can’t hurt. Better to do this on the right side of the law.”
“My brothers want to see this end as much as I do, but they’ve tried to work within the law and that hasn’t done us any good.”
“I didn’t ask for the badge with the thought it would scare my grandfather into turning himself in,” Ramsey said.
“Badge or not, there are going to be more deaths before this is over.”
Ramsey placed one leg up on the first step and leaned into Eliza. “Let’s make sure it’s not one of us.”
The front door opened, and Ethan stepped partially over the threshold that held the outer door. “If the two of you are done catching up, we’ll have that talk now, Eliza.”
Eliza briefly looked at Ramsey. “I’ll see you at supper.”
“No, he’s coming too,” Ethan said.
“I will, but there’s something I have to do first,” Ramsey said.
Ethan studied him a moment and then nodded. He left the door ajar but walked back into the house, and Eliza knew he expected them both to follow.
Ramsey stepped up next to Eliza on the porch and held open the door. “I’ve always thought it best to get the hurting over quickly.”
“Clearly you don’t remember my brothers,” Eliza mumbled and walked past Ramsey into the house.
In the years he’d known the Gallaghers, Ramsey failed to receive an invite to Hawk’s Peak. He’d been friendly with Ethan and Gabriel and had always noticed Eliza, but as a member of the Double Bar outfit, he had never expected an invitation. Nor did he blame the Gallaghers for not extending one. His grandfather had practiced the art of underhanded deception, but Ramsey remained on the Double Bar for all of those years out of loyalty to his grandmother. When he left, it was with the hope of protecting everyone else. A mistake he couldn’t change, but one he hoped to make right.
Ramsey now walked through the Gallaghers’ home and realized the wood and stone construction was merely protection from the elements. The people within those walls gave the structure life and meaning. He envied the warmth and kindness he saw in the small framed photographs on surfaces smelling faintly of beeswax. The worn rugs muffled the sound of his boots and attested to years of good use by a large family. The welcome scents of home cooking wafted from another part of the house and reminded him of the days before his grandmother ceased her efforts to make a home for his grandfather.
He watched Eliza walk toward a room off the left side of the hallway. She turned to face him. “Are you coming?”
He nodded. “In a minute. Where’s Elizabeth?”
Eliza smiled and pointed to a large open door farther down the hallway on the right.
“I just need a minute.”
“My brothers will wait,” she said and disappeared into the library.
Ramsey stopped under the doorframe that led into the kitchen and took a moment to watch the woman who had loved him all the years of his life. Every time he suffered emptiness at the loss of his parents, or of never having known his sister, he remembered everything Elizabeth had sacrificed for him. The pain he experienced of life without his family filled him, but Elizabeth’s love he carried with him during the ten long years he’d been away.
A younger woman walked in behind him. “I’m sorry, sir; I didn’t know anyone else was here.” Her words caught Elizabeth’s attention.
“Brenna told me you’d come,” his grandmother said, and though she didn’t move, she looked at the young woman. “It’s all right, Isabelle. This is my . . . grandson.”
Isabelle glanced quickly between him and Elizabeth, excused herself, and quietly left the room.
Ramsey stepped toward Elizabeth and lifted the towel from her grip. “I gave you a lot of cause not to believe I’d come back.”
“I didn’t give up hope.”
“No, but perhaps I did.” Ramsey’s eyes skimmed over the face that had brought him years of smiles. “I need to take care of something with Eliza and her brothers, but I want to talk—soon.”
“I’d like that, Ramsey.” She hesitated a moment and then pulled his larger frame into her arms.
Elizabeth pulled back and said, “I don’t imagine her brothers are waiting patiently. Go, we’ll have our time.”
Ramsey studied her for a moment longer, squeezed her hands, and exited the kitchen.
When he returned to the library, he paused to study the occupants. Ethan stood behind the oak desk and waited with hands splayed on the desk’s surface. Gabriel stood next to him, his arms crossed—neither man said anything. Ethan indicated the empty leather chair next to the one Eliza currently occupied. Her eyes met his briefly—they both knew what this was about—and they didn’t have long to wait.
Ethan leaned forward, his large hands bracing his weight, his eyes intent on Eliza. “We know better than to question your reasons for doing what you do. You’ve had some foolish ideas in the past, but never did I believe you would sneak away like you did.”
Eliza objected. “I didn’t sneak—exactly. I left a note explaining where I’d gone.”
“Much appreciated,” Gabriel said sarcastically. “Listen, Eliza, I wanted to thrash you when I first realized what you’d done, but I was willing to wait until you returned and explained why.”
“You know why. I believed finding Ramsey was necessary.”
“And it couldn’t wait?” Ethan’s dark blue eyes conveyed his disappointment. “You couldn’t have told Gabriel?”
“Gabriel wouldn’t have allowed me to go alone any more than you would have. He couldn’t go with me and leave the ranch unattended. It was the logical choice.”
Ethan paused in his questions for a moment, and Eliza imagined him reenacting the scenario, except this time with both him and Gabriel cognizant of her plans. Though in Ethan’s scheme, she would have been locked in her bedroom until they thought she’d regained her good sense.
“Do you really believe going the way you did was logical?” Ethan’s voice calmed. “If something had happened to you, it could have been weeks or months before we knew about it.”
“Whether or not I believe it was the best choice doesn’t matter now. I believed it at the time,” Eliza said. “I made a decision and once I do—”
“You don’t let the idea go,” Ethan said. “No matter how foolish.” Ethan exhaled and lowered his head, his voice quiet. “When Gabriel showed me your telegram, I tamped down the worry because I thought you’d turn around halfway there and come home. When you didn’t . . .”
“Worrying you is the only regret I have, but I can’t change what I did.” Eliza stood, and Ramsey followed suit. She was immensely grateful he remained quiet, but it was easier knowing he was there. “I know how much you both wanted answers when I first returned, but then Mabel . . . then too much happened. I’ll answer all of your questions, but please know that I was always safe.”
“We’re all we have,” Gabriel said calmly. “Just don’t do anything like that again without telling us first.”
“I promise,” Eliza replied.
“Can’t say that we’re done with you, Ramsey,” Gabriel said, shifting his focus.
“I expected not.”
“I’m going to trust Eliza when she said nothing happened, but she was gone long enough to require sleeping under someone’s roof.” Ethan turned to Eliza. “Unless of course you stayed in a hotel.”
Ramsey looked briefly at Eliza, his expression telling her that his turn for explanations had come.
“Yes, we slept under the same roof, but only a few nights, and I assure you we were not alone. My friend, Nathaniel, his sister, Mallory, their father, and a house filled with servants can attest to that.”
“The Tremaines,” Ethan said quietly.
Ramsey nodded. “Eliza told me about the letters you received from them. They had only meant to help you in finding me, but you weren’t the first to come looking. They kept me out of their plan for fear that Brenna wasn’t who she claimed to be, that she wasn’t the sister I’d told them about.”
“Wait a minute.” Confused, Gabriel asked, “Who else was looking for you?”
“For a long time, it was my grandfather—Hunter. Once he realized I’d left without telling him, he sent telegrams to sheriffs in towns close by and then as far as Wyoming and the Dakotas. I only learned of it because I knew two of the sheriffs.”
“He never found you?”
“He came close, once.”
Ethan nodded, and then turned to look at his sister. “Would you mind giving us a few minutes alone with Ramsey?”
Eliza looked from Ramsey to her brothers. “I thought you had questions.”
Ethan turned his attention back to Ramsey. “We have plenty of them.”
Eliza’s eyes met Ramsey’s and he nodded. Understanding that he was now the one requesting for her to leave, Eliza looked once more at her brothers with a look that undeniably warned them not to blame Ramsey for anything she had done.
Once Eliza closed the door of the library, Ethan invited Ramsey to sit down while he settled himself in the chair behind the desk. Gabriel stepped across the room to occupy the place Eliza had vacated.
“We were surprised when Eliza showed up here alone.”
Ramsey turned to look at Gabriel. “I couldn’t take her where I was going, and she was anxious to return home. Knowing what’s happened since, I can understand why she didn’t wait. It didn’t sit well with her—being away so long. I’m the one who convinced her to stay on a few days when she likely would have left the day after arriving.”
“I’ll admit I still don’t understand what prompted her to go so suddenly,” Ethan said. “But, we’ve learned to trust Eliza’s judgment. Scolding her as we did—”
“I wouldn’t have done differently if she were my sister.”
Ethan focused on Ramsey with eyes more worldly, yet otherwise identical to Eliza’s.
“But she’s not your sister.”
“I won’t deny there were times we found ourselves alone,” Ramsey said, choosing his next words carefully, “but even if time had allowed for something to occur, nothing would have happened.”
“I believe you,” Ethan said after a moment. “In fact, I’m grateful you were there when she arrived.”
“I imagine she’s capable enough to have dealt with whatever circumstances arose, had I not been.”
Gabriel’s light laughter seemed out of place, considering the conversation, but Ramsey envied his ability to lighten the mood. He remembered Gabriel as the Gallagher who could charm his way into any woman’s heart, laugh at his own shortcomings, and still have the strength to get the work done or die trying. “She likes knowing she’s unreadable.”
“She usually is.” Ramsey’s tone turned quiet and serious. “There were moments I thought I knew exactly what she was thinking, but whenever I believed I’d caught up to her, she’d already thought five more steps ahead of me.”
“That’s our Eliza—damn frustrating.” Ethan leaned back and crossed strong arms over his chest. “You went to some trouble for that shiny metal you pinned to your chest. Care to tell us how or why? We all know we’d do what has to be done with or without a badge.”
“The how isn’t important. But as to the why—the badge has its advantages.”
“Care to elaborate?” Gabriel asked.
“No.” Ramsey leaned back into the chair, looking carefully between Ethan and Gabriel. “I’m going to ask you both for something I haven’t yet earned, but I need you to trust me.”
Silence met Ramsey’s request as both Gallaghers contemplated his request. Moments of speechlessness filled the library, the only sounds coming from the thick walls, reminding them the ranch house lived.
“I don’t mean to state the obvious, but you’ve been gone a long time, Ramsey,” Ethan said. “I’ll admit I’d be hesitant to trust you without explanation, but Eliza trusts you, and for now, that’s enough for me.”
Ramsey slowly nodded. “I appreciate that, and I hope you’ll feel that way later.”
Excerpted from Gallagher's Choice by MK McClintock. Copyright © 2013 by MK McClintock. Published by Trappers Peak Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
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